In 1810 a group of Congregational, Presbyterian and Reformed congregations established the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).
In1810 a group of Congregational, Presbyterian and Reformed congregations established the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). In response to the missionary call, Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons arrived in Smyrna (Izmir) in 1820 on a pioneer missionary journey to the Middle East for the ABCFM. By the end of the 1800’s, this journey led to the establishment of over 100 schools across the region. When the ABCFM decided to focus on Anatolia in 1870, the Presbyterian (PCUSA) mission board continued the work with the Arabic speaking cultures.
Some of these schools have survived, though some have changed location and all have changed their institutional structure. The ABCFM never intended to run these institutions forever. Their intentions were always to turn the management of their schools over to local hands, to those who had a vested interest in the quality of the schools’ futures. Change may be inevitable and healthy, but a firm well-rooted foundation is also essential. Qualities that were important when these schools were founded were; being an independent and critical thinker; fluent in several languages; a researcher and investigator; a person who cares for the welfare of others and for the world; a person well-grounded and active in a rich and diverse curriculum and co-curricular program; and achieving excellence by maximizing one’s potential.
I had the privilege of participating in the inauguration of “Founder’s Day”. This was a celebration to bring together representatives of schools who trace their lineage to an ABCFM established school in Anatolia in the 19th century. As students, teachers, and administrators we came together for 3 days and were hosted by ACI in Izmir. We were from the American Collegiate Institute (ACI, Izmir), International College (IC, Beirut), Üsküdar American Academy (UAA, Istanbul), Tarsus American College (TAC), and the American College in Greece (ACG/Pierce College, Athens).
We visited the site where the original ACI and IC were founded, learning a bit about the history of Smyrna/Izmir. We learned that both ACG and today’s ACI were founded as a single school and split with the exchange of population following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. We visited the site in “Paradise”, outside of Izmir, where IC moved to in 1914 when they needed more space. Today these wonderfully preserved buildings are on a NATO base. IC moved to Beirut in 1936. We listened to the IC students sing their alma mater on the stage of the old auditorium. Students worked together to generate ideas for common social service projects.
The stated aim of Founder’s Day was to “create an understanding of a common heritage and to promote international understanding.” As I listened to wafts of Turkish, Arabic, Greek, English and at times French, as I watched the students interact and explore, and the adults compare history, dreams and frustrations, I knew that the spirit of the ABCFM founders is still alive within our various schools. No other heritage could link such a diverse yet similar group of people together. As our schools begin to search for their roots, they are discovering the stories, the traditions, and the spirit that continues to live on.
Nearly two centuries after the arrival of Fisk and Parsons in Izmir, with the retirement of Ken and Betty Frank, I am the only missionary currently serving in Turkey. It gets a bit lonely at times. But when I participate in events such as Founder’s Day, I feel surrounded by those who have gone before me. Our family is indeed finally finding one another and what a reunion it can be, Turk, Arab, Greek, Christian, Muslim, Jew. Nothing can be more significant, more providential and more full of hope, than this group of students and teachers coming together at this time and in this place in an effort to discover where they come from. Our schools’ shared values and shared belief in the power of education in transforming a person, has been passed down from generation to generation and has now settled upon each one of us connected to these communities. ACI’s motto, “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve” or the motto of ACG in Athens, “Not to be Served, but to Serve” shows how closely connected we are. May the spirit never be extinguished.
Selam / Shalom / Peace
Alison Stendahl serves with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey. She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.